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Cappadocia

January 3, 2023
Balloons over Goreme

Cappadocia had been at the top of the list of things we were excited about when we planned our trip to Turkey.  Fortunately we were not disappointed as Cappadocia lives up to its billing with a mixture of unreal landscapes, underground cities and ancient cave dwellings that make it a very special destination.

When we woke up on our first morning in Cappadocia we were more than a little surprised to find that it was snowing! Did I mention that the whole area is in the interior of the country and at around an altitude of 1000m. The climate here is completely different to the coast and we were getting both barrels on our first day.

A Carpet shop in the Snow

The good news is that Cappadocia has a number of underground cities to be explored, which was a perfect excursion on a cold, snowy day.

Room in Kaymakli Underground City

These cities are multi-level living spaces which have been carved out of the rock stretching up to 12 levels down. They were built to allow the inhabitants to hide from invading armies, with little clue of their existence from the surface. Around 200 underground cities have been discovered in Cappadocia and it is believed there are more. Many of them are linked together with underground tunnels.

Passage at Kaymakli

The first underground city we visited was Kaymakli, which is very popular and on the coach tour route. Only a small section (just 4 levels) of the city is open to tourists but in actual fact, the city is 40 metres deep on 8 levels. Up to 3000 people would have been able to live here.

Many of the passageways are very low

Construction of this city is believed to have been started by the Phrygians in the 8th century BC.

It was hard work moving around in this city, we had assumed with it being underground that it would be cold and damp but it was in fact very warm despite the weather outside and the air was quite dry and dusty. Moving around was also a challenge in some sections due to the low ceiling height.

The second city we visited was called Derinkuyu, which is about 10km further from Goreme than Kaymakli and as a result was much quieter in terms of the number of tourists. That aside, the city is one of the biggest and stretches to a depth of 85m. It could house 20,000 people along with their livestock over 18 levels.

On the left, a round stone door can be rolled into place to block passageway

There is some debate as to whether these cities were permanently inhabited or only used when the people living above ground were threatened.

Derinkuyu was much cooler than Kaymakli and not quite as dusty (this was probably as there were less tourists) but the corridors were just as small.

Our second day in Cappadocia was completely different with blue skies and sunshine. One of the things that Cappadocia is famous for are the sunrise hot air balloon flights over the landscape, with over 200 taking off each day. They only fly on days with good weather and the government controls the flights not the balloon companies.

We booked a balloon trip on our last morning in Cappadocia but were disappointingly informed in the afternoon of the previous day that the forecast was for wind and the balloons would be grounded. Oh well, it gives us a good reason to come back. The price of the 1 hour balloon flights have been on the increase but we found a reputable company offering a trip for €130 per person.

Despite not being able to take our own flight, we were lucky to see the balloons flying two days in a row, firstly from the roof of our hotel and secondly, once we were more familiar with our surroundings, from an area known as sunset point (having first scraped a thick layer of ice off our rental car).

We had chosen to stay in the town of Goreme in Cappadocia, which is the largest tourist town and is in the perfect place to see the many highlights of this region.

Exterior of Dark Church

Just down the road from the town is the Goreme Open Air Museum. This is an area of cave dwellings and a particularly large number of cave churches.

Church in a Fairy Chimney

The highlight here is the Dark church (or Karanlik Kalise), which is not surprisingly quite dark inside, but has remarkably well preserved frescoes on all the walls. No pictures are allowed in here and there is a guard to enforce this.

Frescoes at Goreme Open Air Museum

These frescoes and the church itself date from around the 11th century AD. It is interesting to note that in nearly all of the frescoes in the rock churches in Cappadocia the eyes of the figures have been scratched out. I was told by a local resident that this was because in the past some locals believed that drinking tea with paint scrapings from the eyes of the frescoes had healing properties.

Aynali Church

Just up the road from the Goreme museum we found a small site with a rock cut monastery (the Aynali Church). There was no one around when we arrived and a gate over the entrance was locked but a guy arrived and let us in for a nominal fee – also handing us a torch.

Very Small Passage at Aynali Monastery

The ground floor was a church but on the upper floor there was a big room with a small passage at one end. The small passage was only big enough to crawl through and led via a 20m long snaking route to a large room with no windows.

Zelve Open Air Museum

We also visited the Zelve Open Air Museum which is a few miles drive from Goreme. It is not as busy as the Goreme museum and is over a bigger area. The Zelve churches are some of the oldest in Cappadocia dating back to the 500s. The dwellings in the Zelve valleys were occupied until the 1950’s when the danger of collapse forced the inhabitants to relocate.

Painted Dovecotes at Zelve Open Air Museum

There are two main valleys to this area both of which are lined with cave dwellings. Again there is an impressive rock cut church but with no photos allowed.

We visited the Zelve museum at the end of the day and ended up having to run around before getting escorted to the exit by a very friendly security guard as they wanted to lock up and go home.

Visible from far and wide in Cappadocia is the Rock Castle of Uchisar. This is a gigantic pillar of rock at the highest point in Cappadocia that has been tunnelled into and used as a fortress. It is possible to climb through a series of internal and external stairs to the top for views across Cappadocia.

Uchisar Castle

One of the highlights of a visit to Cappadoccia is hiking through the valleys of this incredible landscape. It is possible to hike straight from Goreme and to do one valley at a time or link several into longer hikes.

Rose Valley Vista

While in the area we hiked through Pigeon valley, Rose and Red Valley as a circular hike and from Uchisar back to Goreme through White and Love valleys. All told I hiked over 30km in three days fitted in around visiting the sites mentioned above.

View from Dwelling in Rose Valley

Each of the valleys has its own character and is worth visiting to see very different structures and colours in the rock.

Fresco in Rose Valley Church

One of the highlights of Rose valley is a well preserved rock cut church with frescoes. The landscape is littered with cave dwellings and churches. There are over 400 churches that have been recorded and I am sure there are many more undiscovered in the valleys.

Love Valley Fairy Chimneys

Love valley is so named for its remarkably phallic fairy chimneys which are up to 30m high and are formed of eroded volcanic ash know as Tuff. Tuff is what makes up all the fairy chimneys in the Cappadocia region. The Tuff was covered with Basalt which has then eroded away to leave the bizarre landscape we see today. The softness of the Tuff is what makes it so easy to dig the cave dwellings, cities and  churches of the region.

Phallic Chimneys at Love valley

Goreme is a very touristy place and as a result the restaurants can be a bit hit or miss. Prices are high and quality is not necessarily so good. However we can wholly recommend a restaurant called Chef Kebap. We walked past and saw that it was busy with Turkish people. Like most traditional restaurants there was no alcohol licence. They served fantastic meze for free at the start.

Meze at Chef Kebab

We had been wanting to try a local speciality called Testi or Pottery Kebab which is a slow cooked stew (chicken, lamb or beef) that has been cooked in a single use clay pot sealed with a pastry lid for around 3 hours. These can be seen cooking over open fires in front of several of the Goreme restaurants. These were duly delivered in a flaming dish and a wonderful piece of theatre cracking the pot open with a large knife and serving it.

Testi Kebab

Overall we had an amazing time in Cappadocia but, due to the delay in Pamukkale, time was against us and we needed to start heading back towards Antalya for our flight home. I would thoroughly recommend visiting this region to anyone as it is unlike anywhere else we have ever been. The mix of fairy chimneys, amazing landscapes coupled with the history makes it a fabulous destination.

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